Kolkata, India: Law enforcement agencies from three continents unveiled a massive FBI-led sting operation on Tuesday, that sold thousands of ostensibly encrypted cellphones to criminal organizations and collected their communication for years.
According to police testimony and unsealed US court documents obtained by Vice News, an ambitious global scheme has been in the works for years.
What is ANOM?
ANOM was marketed as a fully secure encrypted mobile phone that offered ultimate communication privacy to the user.
It was essentially a jailbroken phone with a customized operating system that disabled any text, phone, or GPS capabilities that would allow it to be tracked and traced.
The gadget appeared to be a conventional phone on the surface, but it actually had a “secure” texting service buried behind a working calculator program.
The phone worked on a closed network in principle, with ANOM phones only being able to communicate with other ANOM phones via “military-grade” encryption and secure proxy servers.
A kill switch was also included in the phones, which could be used to wipe contacts or any other locally stored data.
Criminal networks have long used similar sites like Phantom Secure, Sky Global, Ciphr, and EncroChat for planning and communication, and many have been exploited by law enforcement.
Where did the FBI come in?
Phantom Secure’s CEO Vincent Ramos was charged by a grand jury in March 2018, and he and his coworkers subsequently pleaded guilty to a slew of narcotics trafficking offenses.
Shortly after that, an alleged “confidential human source” presented the FBI with ANOM, a next-generation encrypted device designed to replace discredited, defunct, or penetrated systems.
The same source agreed to distribute the now-FBI-compromised Phantom Secure devices to a network of black market distributors who had previously sold Phantom Secure to highly vetted or vouched-for persons, usually members of organized criminal gangs.
Why did criminals buy it?
In the beginning, 50 ANOM phones were given out as a trial run, largely to members of Australian organized crime gangs.
They developed appeal with criminal underworld leaders through word of mouth, who reportedly suggested them to pals.
When European police raided EncroChat in 2020, hundreds were arrested, and Sky Global CEO Jean Francois Eap was jailed, interest in ANOM skyrocketed.
The FBI, Australian police, and an unknown “third country” were able to access almost 20 million messages from 11,800 devices in 90 countries in the end.
Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and Serbia were the countries where they were most popular.
Why did the operation stop?
There is no explanation given as to why the operation has come to a halt. However, a combination of suspicions, legal obstacles, and strategy may have played a role.
Instead of having real-time access to phone activities, law enforcement had all outgoing messages blind copied or ‘BCCed’ to FBI servers, where they were decrypted.
The warrant for one server was set to expire on June 7, 2021, in a third country.
However, doubts were aroused long before the deadline.
“canyouguess67” claimed on WordPress in March that ANOM was a “scam” and that a device he had tested was “in constant contact with” Google servers and passed data to non-secure servers in Australia and the United States.
“I was quite disturbed to see the quantity of IP addresses relating to several organizations within the 5 eyed Governments (Australia, USA, Canada, UK, NZ) who share information with one another,” the post stated before being removed.
Furthermore, one declared goal of “Operation Trojan Shield” was to weaken trust in encrypted devices, which could only be accomplished if the operation was made public.